Friday, January 29, 2010

Let's be honest about Jyoti Basu

Let's be honest about Jyoti Basu
Sutanu guru gives 5 reasons why india cannot afford his ideology, politics, economics and legacy

It is a peculiar trait we Indians share: even those we love to hate acquire such a halo after death that we hate to deny we love to hate them. The death of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh was simply crowded out by the traumatic 26/11 attack in 2008. Yet, even then, we preferred to praise the man who should easily be ranked as the worst Prime Minister that India ever had. Something similar seems to be happening with the allegedly best Prime Minister India never had. Yes, I am talking about Jyoti Basu, the bhadralok Marxist whose death seems to have triggered paroxysms of naïve nostalgia and hypocritical hype. The passing of an era is a term that is being bandied about even by his former opponents who hated his guts and ruthlessness. If you go by media reports after his death, Jyoti Basu should be up there with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru; in fact, some have even compared him with Mother Teresa. Typically Indian, and so typical of our habit and tradition to praise those who have passed on and carp about people who don't want to hide uncomfortable things under a dusty carpet.

But really, let's face some uncomfortable facts before we pronounce Jyoti Basu as the best Prime Minister that India never had and one of the greatest political figures of modern India. If you think Basu was a leader who cared for the poor and the downtrodden, here is what Magsaysay Award winner, author and activist Mahasweta Devi has to say, "Jyoti Basu did very little for the adivasis of the state. I met him on several occasions and appealed to him. My entreaties fell on deaf ears". Sure, you might think that the respected Mahasweta Devi is prejudiced because of her single-minded devotion to adivasis and tribals. Sure, you can put blinkers and prefer to ignore opinion. But, can you ignore facts? Here are some facts that even die-hard believers of the 'Left is Always Right' dogma need to mull over:

l From being one of most industrialised states till the late 1960s, West Bengal is now one of the most backward. Close to 30,000 industrial enterprises were closed down and more than 27,000 units became 'sick' in the hey days of the Basu era of 'Marxist Pragmatism'.

l Unpaid Provident Fund dues of jute mill workers amounted to Rs 5 crore in 1977. They had shot up to more than Rs 200 crore by 2000, when Jyoti Basu handed over the baton to Buddhadeb Bhattacharya (a sobering history lesson for those who think Basu was busy creating a paradise for workers and the proletariat in West Bengal).

l The worst social development indicators and the worst representation in government jobs for Muslims happens to be in the 'fanatically' secular West Bengal (Another deliciously ironical historical nugget here. The devoted Marxist Nurul Islam died in police firing in 1976 during a food agitation. His death played a key role in Marxists coming to power in the state in 1977. His family was subsequently abandoned by the comrades and the brothers of Nurul Islam now actively work with Trinamool Congress!).

At least 13 out of the 18 major districts of West Bengal come in the category of the 100 poorest districts of India.

Not a single medical college was set up during the reign of Jyoti Basu.

Police firings on workers, tribals and farmers were routine during the regime. About 20 enquiry commissions were set up. Only one submitted a report whose recommendations were never implemented.

There is much more that can be proffered as evidence. But we know even voluminous tomes on the misdeeds of the regime will not sway the ideologically blinkered who are convinced that dogma is morally superior to facts. Yet, it is very important to set the record straight. There is no doubt that future historians will marvel at the naiveté of the nostalgic outpourings after the death of Basu when they contrast this with his actual track record. But such nostalgic naiveté can prompt India to make the kind of mistakes that Jyoti Basu and his fellow comrades, willfully or unknowingly, committed in their quest for Red glory. Quite simply, in this 21st century world of rapidly changing dynamics, India simply cannot help but renounce, abjure, condemn and castigate the legacy left behind by Basu and his Red warriors.

Here are five important reasons why:

Party & ideology over nation

Most will remember the visceral and unflinching manner in which Prakash Karat and his fellow comrades opposed the nuclear deal between India and the United States. During the official visit of George Bush to India, they even forgot courtesy while abusing and heckling him (one wonders how many people would have been killed in police firing if demonstrators had abused and heckled Chinse Supremo Hu Jintao during a hypothetical state visit to Kolkata?) But not many will remember that Marxists like Basu always blamed India more than China for the 1962 debacle. Just consider this: The CPI, mentored by the Soviet Union, supported the Emergency because Indira's India was a Soviet ally; the CPI(M) opposed it vehemently because China was not very fond of Indira's India. Of course, both supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and kept quiet on the Chinese invasion of fellow Marxist state Vietnam in 1979. Under Jyoti Basu, West Bengal always gave more importance to ideology over public interest. Anything that the United States did was wrong, sinful, imperialistic and evil. Anything that the former Soviet Union and China did was far above criticism. This was all right till the 'ideology over national and public interest' line was largely symbolic. But, it had terrible consequences for the state when dogma invaded realpolitik and started affecting the lives and livelihoods of millions of citizens. Mercifully for India, voters now seem far less swayed by ideology and identity politics than they were in the recent past; that perhaps was the biggest message sent out by voters during the 2009 general elections when both the CPI(M) and the BJP were humiliated and humbled.

Intolerance & authoritarianism

Strange as it may sound, this is a trait that Marxists seem to share with Fascists. And like the Fascists, the Marxists have an uncanny way to ruthlessly weed out dissent and free speech even within their own ranks. Many of you know how Prakash Karat and comrades expelled fellow Marxist Somnath Chatterjee for behaving like the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and refusing to vote against the Manmohan Singh government. But much before Somnath Chatterjee became a victim of such classic Marxist intolerance, comrades like Jyoti Basu had set wonderful precedents. Senior Marxist leader Benoy Choudhury was ruthlessly sidelined during the hey days of Basu when he criticised the government for encouraging traders and businessmen at the expense of the poor. He died a forgotten man. Another Marxist leader and former MP Manoranjan Hazra had to leave the party after accusing fellow comrades of promoting "promoter Raj". His daughter - despite several High Court orders - simply failed to get even a school teacher's job in Basu's Bengal. Some of you might have heard of Nripen Chakraborty, a Marxist who became the chief minister of Tripura. He was perpetually sidelined after publicly criticising Basu's policies.

If Basu and his acolytes could treat 'family members' so ruthlessly, imagine the fate of citizens and activists who were not Marxists. Police firings, custody deaths and 'raids' organised by party workers were actually the order of the day in Basu's Bengal. One of the worst is the Marichjhapi massacre where more than 3,000 Dalit protestors were killed. It is only during the Singur and the Nandigram agitations that the sheer ruthlessness of the Marxists and their police machinery came to light and became the staple for media. But it was perfected during Basu's regime when any villager daring to vote against the Marxists automatically became a target for the Marxist goons. That kind of authoritarianism is now coming back to haunt the successors of Basu. And ask yourself honestly: with so many grievances, injustices and inequity, will India survive if the State displays such authoritarianism?

Murder of entrepreneurship

Till the late 1960s, Bengal was one of the most industrialised states of India. Many prominent Marwari business families who found their early fortunes during the British Raj had made Calcutta their home. One of the most respected of the lot is B.K. Birla, almost 90-years-old, and a man who personally witnessed interactions between his father G.D. Birla and Mahatma Gandhi. Of course, he has also witnessed the destruction of West Bengal as an industrial hub. He says, half in sorrow and half in mockery, "What can businessmen expect but unions, strikes, threats and God knows what else. Tell me, which businessman will invest there. You know, when they are out of Bengal, the people are the most hard working, industrious and enterprising. But inside the state…you can see what happened to Bengal over the last 40 years. I don't need to elaborate. Of course, I have always considered Calcutta my home and always will. But frankly, I don't see a bright future for the state."

B.K. Birla considers Calcutta and Bengal his home. But entrepreneurs and capital have been running away from the state at an ever increasing rate. As mentioned earlier, close to 30,000 units have shut down and about 27,000 units are 'sick' almost beyond redemption. Despite the best efforts of Jyoti Basu and his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, private investors still think 20 times before even contemplating a move to Bengal. By now, states like Orissa are overtaking Bengal in industrial investment and Bihar, too, might do that in the near future. This is primarily because the regime under Jyoti Basu virtually declared war on entrepreneurs and encouraged party cadres and trade union members to do their worst. Even the Chinese have long recognised and embraced the virtues of entrepreneurship in wealth and job creation. But in his 23 year old rule, Basu preferred to ignore them, if not chase them away. India in the 21st century simply cannot do without entrepreneurs; just as it can't do without a state that intervenes on behalf of the poor and the marginalised. This virulent antagonism towards entrepreneurs is a Basu legacy that India can do without.

Destruction of institutions

A democracy survives and prospers only when institutions are robust, healthy and accessible to all citizens. Despite all its glaring flaws, India can be proud as a democracy where institutions have often been threatened but never destroyed - even during the excesses of the Emergency. But in Bengal under Basu, the party assaulted and captured virtually every institution that is important for the survival of a functional democracy. More than Basu, it was party ideologue Pramode Dasgupta - long dead since 1972 - who lead this Red charge. Things reached such a state that you had to be a member or a sympathiser of the 'cause' to get a promotion or even a job. Schools and colleges were filled with teachers and professors who were more interested in the interest of the 'party' than the future of the students; municipal offices, lower courts, libraries, universities, panchayats and even cultural institutions were invaded by cadres who gradually came to hold complete sway over them. It was this systematic capture and destruction of institutions that helped the Marxists retain power for so long; booth capturing or rigging is so much easier when the polling officer is a comrade.

When institutions are so systematically undermined, the state becomes even more vulnerable when dissent and opposition gather steam. In China, the ideological mentors of the Bengal Marxists have managed to thrive because they have offered a better standard of living to citizens. Having failed to do even that, the Marxists in Bengal realised that Singur and Nandigram became harbingers of another anti-Red revolution that is sweeping the state. As you sow, so shall you reap. India as a whole seriously needs to repair its institutions that have been under attack from crime, corruption and an immoral political class. Surely, the Basu legacy will ruin whatever is left to salvage.

Crony socialism

Ideology is eventually almost always trumped by opportunism. Here is what Left Historian Narhari Kabiraj says about the great split in the Marxist movement in India in 1964, "Basu was initially opposed to the split, but when he realised that things were changing rapidly and he would gain politically if he switched sides, he joined the CPI(M) and became a Politburo member". Of course, Basu was also Deputy chief minister in an alliance government with the Bangla Congress.

That kind of political opportunism is no big deal; it is part of politics. But when such opportunism started becoming crony socialism, things became very bad for citizens of the state. Not a single medical college came up during the tenure of Basu; worse, land allotted at throwaway prices were used to build 'corporate' hospitals like Ruby, Peerless and EEDF. And don't forget, the practice of using farmland for industrial purposes started during his tenure, Falta, Haldia and Rajarhat as prime examples. But dissent was so ruthlessly suppressed then that not many could get to know about the sweetheart deals that the Marxist regime was making with businessmen. It's only the deal with Ratan Tata for the Nano car plant and the sheer injustice of the deal towards landowners and sharecroppers that the chickens started coming home to roost. Most agree that crony socialism was perfected into an art by the time Basu retired in 2000. Large swathes of India have been victims of crony socialism. But perhaps the worst affected has been Basu's Bengal.

Sure Jyoti Basu was a tall leader, arguably the tallest Marxist in India (Who remembers S.A Dange, E.M S Namboodiripad and Harkishen Singh Surjeet anyway?). Sure, let's praise him for the good deeds he has done. But let us not go overboard and make him a Marxist version of Jawaharlal Nehru. Bengal has lost decades of growth, social development and employment opportunities. History will be nostalgic and polite; it will inevitably declare that Jyoti Basu cannot escape his sins of omission and commission.

In defence of Jyoti basu

A Glorious Legacy

The death of Jyoti Basu marked the end of a legendary set of political leaders who were part of the freedom movement. Much of the commentary following his death has primarily focused on his record-making 23 years as chief minister of West Bengal, but what has been rarely discussed is that his political life spanned nearly seven decades - starting as a student activist who joined the Communist movement and aided in the freedom struggle while being in England, later immersing himself into working class, organising, working in legislature from the young age of 32 after getting elected from the Railway constituency in as early as 1946, building his rudimentary party-which was banned till 1950s-into viable opposition to the ruling Congress, and serving as the leader of the Opposition for years, working in a coalition government and finally becoming the chief minister. In all his roles that he played in his career - his political positions were remarkably consistent - from opposing what he called "ultra-left" resolution for an insurrection by the party just post independence, to utilising the parliamentary route for mass struggles and combining it with extra-parliamentary work to building a robust and highly penetrative form of three-tier democratic institutions - the Panchayati Raj when in government. In the manner he worked even with his adversaries and in the high praise that he earned for his work both in opposition and in government, Jyoti Basu distinguished himself as a democrat to the core.

Critics - particularly from the urban middle class and there are many - have pointed out to the lack of adequate industrialisation of West Bengal during the years Jyoti Basu ruled. The man himself acknowledged some of the shortcomings - he was self-critical of his government's achievements in education and health for example, but seen in the overwhelming light of the achievements made by the CPI(M)-led government in tackling rural poverty, food insecurity and rural to urban migration, it can be said with authority that the Jyoti Basu led regime was the most pro-poor among all state governments in the country. The implementation of land reforms - even today 22% of the total land distributed in India has been done in West Bengal and 54.6% of the total beneficiaries in the country were from West Bengal - was his sterling achievement. As regards industrialisation, the chief minister fought lengthy battles with the Central government over discrimination in clearing industrial projects and managed to build the Haldia Petrochemicals project.

Following the liberalisation policies adopted in the Centre, Jyoti Basu seized the opportunity to escape the licence-permit-raj dominated economic system to construct the New Industrial Policy in 1994, but always emphasised that the policy should complement the needs of the urban and rural poor.

In the way he constructed the concept of united and Left fronts, in the manner he impressed upon the Congress to build the UPA (the first time that the Congress was running a coalition government) supported by the Left Front from outside and in the way he was consulted by his ideological counterparts such as Rajiv Gandhi (on Panchayati Raj, relations with China), Atal Behari Vajpayee (in the Indo-Bangladesh water sharing treaty), he showed his mettle as a sagacious and wise statesman who was appreciated not just by his fellow compatriots but also by his detractors.

by Srinivasan Ramani

(Assistant Editor, EPW)

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